|Behold the enigma|
On my study desk I have a framed letter from Sigmund Freud to an English physician. Unfortunately, the letter is not dated, however, it was written when Freud was still practicing in Vienna, so it must have been written before 1938, after which Freud moved to Britain. It mainly concerns a case report Freud was working on at the time and I suppose there is enough internal evidence to be able to work out a close date for when it was written. But frankly, I can’t be arsed.
Sigmund Freud is considered the father of psychoanalysis, and I think rightly so. He effectively founded the discipline and his theories dominated the field throughout the first part of the 20th century. Indeed, he still exerts a tremendous, and often a baleful influence, on modern psychoanalytic thought to this day.
Clearly, Freud was a man of formidable intellectual vigour and his capacity for work was astonishing. But Freud remains an intellectual enigma, out of tune with the intellectual timbre/temper of his time. Science had been in the ascendancy, in the enlightened West, for centuries. Freud, in spite of his intelligence, exhibited thought patterns akin to the intellectual methodology of Ancient Greek philosophers 2,500 years ago. He appears to have had no time, or at least seemed oblivious, toward empirical science and the scientific method. Like the Ancient Greeks, he would make observations of a phenomenon, then move straight to theory without the intervening stages of formulating a hypothesis and subsequent testing by experiment. In his own time these intellectual processes were clearly redundant and anachronistic. Like the ancient Greek philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, Freud thought that pure reason could unleash new knowledge. And in this regard, he is simply right, but only in the world of mathematics and logic. His contempt for the scientific method, at least in the realm of psychoanalysis, is illustrated by the following anecdote. On being told by an associate that a researcher had found experimental evidence for his concept of ‘Repression’, Freud was heard to remark: “I do not require experimental data for the validity of my concepts, they exist anyway.”
It is of no surprise that Freud’s concepts were often couched in the names of mythical Ancient Greek characters- the Oedipus complex being a striking example. He also introduced the Ancient Greek concept of duality into his theories: consider his formulation of the ‘life force’ and its darker blood relative, ‘the death drive’, named Eros and Thanatos respectively. It appears that Freud was a better Classicist than a Scientist. Much of his work would not pass the rigorous peer reviewed scientific standards demanded of modern scholarship, today. That said, Freud remains important because of his early influence on the ‘theory of the mind’, although most of what he preached has been discarded by modern psychologists. Perhaps only his simplistic model of the psyche has relevance to modern thought, although his ideas were arrived at by intuition and not based on anything intellectually concrete. Most educated folk are aware of Freud’s conceptualisation of the Id, Ego and Superego. His major insight was to recognise the importance of the vast unconscious mind and the sublime influence of the unconscious on conscious thought processes.
For all the intellectual derision and opprobrium aimed at Freud today by modern psychology Professors, Freud’s standing in the lay public mind remains high. Indeed, he has successfully invaded our unconscious thoughts and Freudian concepts remain entwined within our cerebral cortex (stop waxing lyrical, Flaxen, and take your medication). Our society is littered with Freudian slips such as: Arrested development; Death wish; Phallic symbols; Anal retentiveness; Defense mechanisms; Cathartic release. And on and on and on. No doubt when these learned Professors have slipped this mortal coil, most will soon be forgotten along with their work, but Freud will endure.